Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

nullWriting a
film about one of the most brilliant men on earth can’t be an easy task. The Theory of Everything, though, not only showcases Stephen Hawking, but even more so his wife Jane. When I
sat down to chat with screenwriter Anthony McCarten, I wasn’t surprised that he
had a compassionate and introspective attitude towards every topic we
discussed. I thought, this man was made
for storytelling.
McCarten, though, was quick to stress just how much work
it requires: a theory Mr. Hawking might agree with himself. Telling the best
stories and revealing the most exciting secrets comes with the greatest
responsibility.

 

After McCarten and I discussed our favorite teahouses in
London–yes, he’s very British–we got down to his beginnings. “I started as a
journalist.” This is where McCarten first learned a little about writing. He
recalls the first story he ever wrote: “We used to put these stories in vacuum
cylinders, and they used to shoot across the room to the sub-editor.” He remembers
her, surrounded in clouds of smoke as she crossed out and filled in an array of
articles. “She wrote some stuff on it and she put it back in the vacuum
tube. I opened up the little cannister,
and it was all entirely crossed out, with just the words, ‘Try harder’.”

This stuck with McCarten. I point out how elusive that
statement can be. We’ve all heard it before, whether from our third-grade math
teacher or our adult boss. He specifies what it meant to him.

“Be more ambitious.
Do your homework. There’s no easy way around this. We live in an age of, what course can I sign up for and in 24 hours
become a screenwriter
?”

He’s got a point. But McCarten didn’t learn
screenwriting quick. He’s been in the business of writing for many years,
working also as a novelist and playwright. I brought up his most successful
play to date, Ladies Night. It had
eight sell-out national tours of Britain and has been translated into twelve
different languages. McCarten laughs, “It’s been everywhere! It’s been done on
an ice floe in Greenland!” He’s kidding: “No, but almost.” But
that success didn’t come until after he had a number of other plays produced.
He shrugs: “But no one went to them. Commercial success and quality are not
necessarily allied.”

He compares playwriting to his work as a screenwriter,
discussing that although plays are built upon dialogue, the two crafts aren’t
dissimilar. “It’s the same game, but it’s different tools from the toolbox.” McCarten does point out that he finds novel
writing is the most “meditative, most prayer like.” He’s
had the best experiences with screenplays when he’s allowed to also reach that peaceful state.
Luckily for McCarten, he’s developed a way to enter this meditative state regardless of location: “I was born to a very
large family, one of 7 kids, I grew up with carnivals and chaos all around me,
so I can write anywhere.” He wrote his last novel entirely on a dining car on a train
in Germany, enjoying the sounds of the car and people around him.

So, how did McCarten, who’s clearly already made a name for
himself in the British literary scene get involved with The Theory of Everything? As it turns out, winning the approval of
Jane Hawking wasn’t as easy as one may think. 

McCarten read Jane Hawking’s book, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen in 2004 and was already
“hyper-aware of Stephen Hawking and the dramatic potential of his story.” He
realized “this is God’s gift to a storyteller.” McCarten attributes that to the
uniqueness of Hawking. “When that voice comes out of the computer…. it’s the
voice of God himself! It has an enormous power.” A relationship story centered on
a man like this excited him.

“Love stories are all
about obstacles.”

Approaching Jane required some guts, more than just reaching
out to an editor or agent. “I had to do something more outlandish,” McCarten
reveals. “I stalked her!” He went to Cambridge and showed up at her door. Her publisher
had set up the appointment, but she had never met McCarten before. I had to know
what pitching Jane Hawking was like: “I sketched it out
roughly on the train. It was three movies in one. I wanted to give equal weight
to all those three threads.”

“I used a clumsy
image of a triple helix, of these three threads complementing each other. The
threads would be this one of a kind love story, with all the little unorthodox
changes in course. The second thread would be the physics that would tell us
something about the birth of time and the nature of time. The third element would
be the horror story of Stephen’s physical decline.”

This was his pitch, and McCarten is thankful the script never
changed much from his original idea. “I wanted the story of the career to be
just as important as the care. I wanted the woman’s story to be just as
important as that of the iconic man.” To his relief, Jane was convinced of his ideas,
enough to tell him to write a draft of the script. “That began the
process of me winning her trust.” 

Again, like the “try harder” goal, gaining someone’s trust
can be equally as abstract. How do you actually do it? McCarten reveals
that for him, gaining trust for a project means, “You prove it on paper. In the
end it’s not the pitch, it’s the work you produce.” When Jane finally read his
draft, she could tell that it wasn’t all talk. After that, McCarten and Jane started
to make progress. Up until then. McCarten explains that Jane’s autobiography
had been unflinching. “Some of the press in England can be a little malicious
and gave the book quite a hard time. They don’t want to hear that side of the
story. They don’t want to hear that it might have been hard work looking after
Stephen.” But for McCarten, that’s exactly the element of the story he wanted
to bring to life.

As McCarten got deeper into writing the script, and one
about a man he greatly admired, he admits, “It brought out the best in me. It
required nothing less than my best shot.” But his greatest worry wasn’t
capturing the Hawkings’ voices as much as it was that they would never be
heard. He wrote on the film for years without a guarantee it would be made.
“That was the scary thing. It would have been like a creative death or
something.” It would have been the script that slipped through his fingers.

Fortunately, it didn’t. Before we got to the details of
shooting the film, I had to know how McCarten crafted such a massive story. The
characters are just as complex as the concepts. Starting within his helix idea,
McCarten knew the beats in all three threads of the story. He carefully allowed
each thread, the love story, the science and the physical decline to naturally
weave together. ”It was really painterly in the approach, a little magenta, a
little bit of blue, a little bit of yellow and in the juxtaposition of these
elements, something else was born.” He found parallels between the expansion of
the universe and the growth of Hawking’s mind, “the black holes
being contractions of the universe and then his body collapsing. It was like
adding two chemicals together and getting a third reaction.”

These mirror images are prevalent in the film and powerful,
without being heavy-handed. Time is also something that connects all three
threads and serves as a throughline. “The theory of everything: another phrase for
that is the unifying principle, and the unifying principle of this whole entire
script is time. It’s implicit in his doctoral thesis in the beginning of it.”
Hawking, from the beginning, is living at a different speed, experiencing time
differently than the characters around him. “Although we’re very much
intellectually driven to look forward, the heart is a bit of a time traveler
and it’s just as alive in the past as it is in the present.” Upon a closer look,
time travel is even mentioned in the dialogue, Jane ascribing her love for
literature to it.

McCarten reveals that the concept of time travel was
implemented in more than just the dialogue. ”Everyone on the team tried to
embody it in their own way. I know that the cinematographer, Benoît
Delhomme, did a great job of finding cosmic elements that would, without
rupturing reality, give you a sense of timelessness.” He did so with lighting,
keeping a stronger light on Stephen because he was the sun. In the visual and
emotional language of the film, everyone orbited around him. McCarten laughs, “Everyone
was trying to dial up the inner poet.”

So much of the film did rely on the visuals, more so than
usual, given the protagonist is losing his capacity for words. Although
McCarten comes from a playwriting and novelist background, he was excited to
work on a project not so reliant on word play.

“I wanted to work
with the restrictions almost Stephen had, taking away the primary tool in my
toolbox which is dialogue and working with almost nothing.”

A scene with Stephen and Jane comes to my mind. He tells her
he’s moving to America and their marriage is basically ended. So much is communicated,
with such little speech. McCarten agrees that it’s one of the scenes he’s most
proud of. “By the end of the scene they’re no longer husband and wife, and to do
that with almost no words was one of the great challenges and joys of writing
this kind of material.” While developing that scene, he scraped away the
dialogue till there was almost none, having each word communicate multitudes. When
Jane says, “I have loved you,” it’s a single line that changes their entire
relationship so far.  McCarten knew that in
order to earn this moment, and have it prove effective, he had to plant the
seed early on. He began with Jane and Stephen as a “witty, young couple and at
the end almost incapable of movement. They would be the polar opposite of each
other. I thought that central architecture would be really fascinating to play
with and I thought, the less dialogue I use in the end, the greater the
dramatic reward.”

McCarten’s construction of the script and the characters is
indeed elegant. Still, I was curious where he
was in the story. Every writer leaves an imprint of themselves on any
project. At first, McCarten explained that it’s more that “in between the known
points, they’re like stars in the sky, there are these vast empty spaces, and
this is where you have to use poetic license.” 

“It’s distilled
through what I think is appropriate for them, but they’re not there to give me
the exact words. I call it inspired speculation.”

McCarten never had the guarantee that he would get it right,
that these inspired moments would prove affective. But when Jane Hawking saw
the film and said, “I feel like I’m floating on air” and Stephen sat through it
and his “nurse wipe[d] tears from his cheeks,” McCarten was relieved, having a
realization he must have done something right:
“95% of the dialogue is just my best shot at what they might have said!” He admits,  “That’s you, that’s
your personality. You can’t write a character more brilliant than yourself. It’s
just not physically possible.” He brings us back to where we began, with his
first piece as a journalist. Whatever he’s working on, whether sending it
through a vacuum tube to an editor or onto a screen in front of Jane and Stephen
Hawking, McCarten still repeats that phrase to himself,  “Try harder!”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and Beyond

Oscar Isaac Talks About Pragmatism, Morality and Putting Yourself On the Line

nullOscar Isaac is perhaps one of the most exciting men in film right now. After showcasing both his singing and acting chops in Inside Llewyn Davis, he’s since landed roles
in Mojave opposite Mark Wahlberg and
Garrett Hedlund, Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse
and then of course that tiny movie no one is excited about: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

But meanwhile Isaac has also been making quieter, if not
more in-depth movies.  J.C. Chandor’s (All is Lost) A Most Violent Year showcases
Isaac in the title role, playing Abel, an ambitious businessman in 1981 New
York City. Jessica Chastain, with whom Isaac attended Juilliard years back,
plays his wife Anna, the daughter of a gangster and the Bonnie to Abel’s
Clyde.  Isaac plays Abel with a precision
far different than messy Llewyn who loved cats and twiddled on his
guitar. Abel is pristine, determined, and elusive in his motivations. 

Press Play had a chance to sit down with Isaac in LA this
week, just a few days after the Star Wars
trailer set out to take down computer servers across the planet. But we
were interested in getting into the details of Isaac’s incredibly crafted
performance in A Most Violent Year. Sporting
a mustache, with the charm of Llewyn and the introspection of Abel, Isaac chatted
building character and the fine line between morality and pragmatism. 

MA: The last
thing I saw you in was Inside Llewyn
Davis,
where you’re playing a character always asking other people for help.
Abel is always fighting against that. Are you more like Abel or a bit of both
characters?

OI: The thing with Llewyn was that he was not
happy asking for help.  But he’s in a What the hell else am I
gonna do? Can I bum a cigarette?
kind of situation. With Abel, yes, he’s going to do things on his own, but there’s that constant fear that all of ithis could fall apart at
any moment as well. When you’re playing somebody, the guy’s a millionaire,
clearly he’s affluent, he’s doing great, got a great little family, moving to a
bigger house, it’s kind of hard to find a reason to root for the guy. J.C. said that often, with a lot of these dudes who end up growing so much, there’s
at least two or three moments in their life when they just go all in. They risk everything. This movie starts with Abel being like, ‘We’re risking everything right now.’ That intensity, the pull
between I’m risking everything, I could
lose everything at any minute
and at the same time the singularity of
vision, I know what our goal is and I
know how we can get there
, being unflappable. Those two things
happening at the same time.

MA: Playing a
character with that constant conflict must have required physical work. This
man has this anxiety in his gut the entire time. His goal is not to show people
that. How did you start building Abel? Did you manifest that anxiety and build
on top of that?

OI: It was a very
dense script.  Obviously he’s very
formal. He doesn’t use contractions. He speaks very formally. As an actor you
have a choice, you’re like I want to make
it more human and talk like I do
. I chose to lean into the formality in a
way almost like a memory of your grandfather. I would ask [J.C.] all these
questions–"What’s he feeling here, what’s he going through?"–and he would say, "The hair’s going to be amazing." And I’d be like, "What?" [Laughs] Then, "What’s
going on inside…?" He’s like, "The suits, you got to take a look at the suits!"  I would get so frustrated! I even wrote him, "I don’t
care about suits. I don’t care about the hair! I need to know what’s going on
inside!" And then at one point he said, "The suits are not about fashion, it’s
a suit of armor."  Suddenly that hit me
in a much different way. As an actor, that’s completely actable.

MA: He was
telling you to take the physical avenue in.

OI: Yeah, to a certain
extent, and also he was saying I have to find my emotional way in. It can’t really be about what he wants me to
express in this moment. You realize everything is about presentation.
Everything is about calculation. This is war and this is his suit of armor.
That influenced how I wore it. It wasn’t wearing a suit to look cool. It was
wearing a suit because it was his armor and his way of defense against other
people. Even the way he’d sit, come into a room. He wouldn’t really have
angles. He always squared off at everyone.

MA: I remember
one of the only times Abel sits back is when he’s at the table with all of the
gangsters. You’re trying to have power.

OI: Yea. Finding
those moments of very calculated movement. He counts two not like this [Isaac
hold up his pointer and middle finger], but counts it like this [he holds up
his thumb and pointer] because that’s a much more aggressive form of two.
Little things like that, building all those physical things.

MA: What about
with his wife?

OI: Then with
her, not being afraid to soften it completely. Something that I didn’t even
realize until I saw it all together, how often I grab her face with both hands.
That happens a lot and I wasn’t even aware of it. You do so many different
takes and there were some takes where I didn’t do that. But to see that that is
a motif that runs throughout it. Everything else is so much about standing back
and keeping everything close to the chest and not letting anybody in and then
the moments that he’s with his wife it’s the opposite physicality. It’s those
little things that subconsciously, when you’re watching it, stick.

MA: I like that
Abel exists in this gray area, where he’s not quite an upright citizen and he’s
not quite a gangster, he vacillates between the two. When you looked at the
script, especially now knowing it was super dense, did you navigate his emotions
by when he dips into either side of the spectrum?

OI: Well first it
was about constructing what the spectrum is. What are his extremes? Where is he
coming from that gives him a sense of context? One of the early things was to
build a backstory, because he doesn’t reveal any of that.

MA: None of it.

OI: None of it. It’s
only present and future. He says that toward the end: "You can only look forward,
you can’t look backwards." There is something about this immigrant story where
you burn your past. You re-invent yourself. He’s definitely someone who
ascribes to that. The idea that he’s so against violence, well, where does that
come from? Why is that the case?

MA: Why is he clinging
to his morality? That was my question.

OI: Mine too until
I realized it’s not morality. It’s pragmatism. I found out about Bogotá,
Columbia in the late 50s, which is when he would have left. It was a time of the
civil war. It was called La Violencia, the violence. Horrific violence was
happening. Men, women children, it was mayhem. He fled from there. He has an
incredibly intimate experience with violence. He comes to this country,
reinvents himself, but finds that violence keeps coming after him. The idea of not
getting a gun is not because I’m afraid of guns, it’s not because I think guns
are wrong, it’s because it’s impractical, it’s stupid and it’s exactly what
they want me to do. If I get a gun, even if I get one legally, and someone
tries to break in, I’m going to shoot somebody. What happens if I kill
somebody? Do you think that I’ll be able to get in bed with a politician down
the road, with the DA? They’re after us for any little any thing. It’s the
dumbest thing that you could do right now, to get a gun and kill somebody, even
if its protecting someone, because it’s not the long view. That’s what he is.
He’s someone that has very specific goals, very specific strategy and if he has
any genius at all it’s that he has the confidence in that vision. Even though
he’s scared shitless that it’s all going to fall apart, he thinks If I can manage these little disasters, I
know this is going to get us to where we need to go
.

MA: At the end of
the film, when something extremely tragic occurs, do you think that Abel admits
to himself that power is worth the fatalities? What is happening for him?

OI: That’s the
thing. The idea of pragmatism was helpful and the idea of shying away from the
morality side was helpful in the way that I was able to get to that place. Those
things weren’t active. I don’t know how you act morality. A strategy is
actable, strategy I can get behind. What got me there was thinking about
sociopathic behavior and sociopaths in business and how often great business
men share those characteristics which is a lack of empathy and a lack of
sincerity and seeing humans as commodities. I think you’re absolutely right.
This [other character] is such a problem. He’s such a danger to [Abel’s]
business. He’s completely expendable. To be able to shut off your emotions so
drastically, I think that the only way you can do that is if you have some of
these sociopathic qualities.

MA: That’s stuff
you think Abel has had from the beginning?

OI: I absolutely
do. At the one end of the spectrum it’s, What
do you do for me as far as attaining my goals? Do you help me attain my goals?
If you do, then you’re a human. If not, you’re completely expendable.
To
the other end of the spectrum, which is, I
will do things the right way. There’s a path that’s the higher, smarter path, and
there’s the lesser one
. That’s the other end of the spectrum.

MA: That’s a
spectrum you have to deal with as an actor. J.C. has described Abel as being
this man that sees, in a moment of crisis, that when you’re the most scared is when
you take the biggest risk and reap the greatest reward, or fail. Can you think
of a specific moment as an actor where you’ve been in the same position as
Abel?

OI: Really, you
should be in that position every time they say, ‘Action.’ You’re willing to
risk looking horrible and failing, failing big. You risk showing yourself too
and really going there. That’s one of the hardest things to do in any art is to
risk failure and put yourself out on the line.

MA: You’re doing
that with your next projects. Do you have hopes and fears around risking your
personal life and privacy?

OI: Yeah, that
definitely plays into it because I’m definitely someone that’s private. I’ve
never been interested in celebrity. Sure, as these films are way more high
profile, you become more visible. That’s definitely something that you are
sacrificing to be able to, at least for me, do the thing that I love, which is
to make movies and play characters, do these meditations on these lives.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

nullTed Melfi has been in the movie industry for years. He’s worked in
commercials, produced shorts and started Goldenlight Films, a production
company, with his wife Kimberly Quinn. St.
Vincent,
though, is his first major feature film. He snagged Bill Murray as
his lead after finding him through a 1-800 number and, soon after, the
Weinstein Company came on to produce. The cast is incredible, the story is accessible,
and, from my experience, the audiences are responding. Watching St. Vincent at the Grove Theater in LA
on a Friday night, no one left during the credits. They rolled, Bill Murray
danced to Bob Dylan, and everyone stayed put, in awe. I whispered to my friend,
“People love this movie.”

Bill Murray plays
Vincent, an unemployed drunk in Brooklyn who loves to curse and make other people
feel inferior. When a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son
Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vincent takes the opportunity to
make some extra cash by babysitting Oliver. Although Vincent is initially
distant, surrounding himself with gambling, booze and a Russian prostitute Daka
(Naomi Watts), he and the boy soon form a bond. When Oliver is asked to pick a
saint at school, he insists that Vincent, who most view as a nightmare, is
actually a good guy, even a saint.

I met with Melfi at the Weinstein offices in LA. Walking
into the conference room, surrounded by hit movie posters, stiff chairs
and a massive glass table, I was immediately comforted by Melfi’s warm smile
and firm handshake. He was vulnerable right off the bat, confident but sincere.
I soon was convinced
that if I were Bill Murray, I’d say “yes” to this guy too.

Melfi got his start producing in a way that is both
unlikely and believable. He worked in an
Italian restaurant in Studio City. A guy walked in one day and started talking
about a story he had: “It’s about this African American kid back in the Midwest
trying to find himself as a writer.” Melfi was compelled by the story. The man offered Melfi
his script and asked if he had produced. He said, “yes,” with an apron on. Melfi had never produced before.

Thankfully, LA is about faking it till you make it. He spent
the next few months raising $600,000, and they were shooting the film weeks
later. Melfi knew,  “This is what I’m
going to do with my life and I’m 23.” 

He went on to write and shoot projects with his wife
Kimberly Quinn with their production company Goldenlight Films. Melfi completed
seven indie movies where he produced and wrote, but he refrained from
directing.  Meanwhile, he was writing
things on the side and trying to get agents all over L.A. All of his films were
released, but in today’s industry, that doesn’t mean you’re making a good
living. After eight years of producing, Kimberly said he had to get a real job.
She suggested commercials, having worked on a plethora of them as an actress.
Eventually, Melfi made specs and got lucky with MTV. He made a commercial
starring Ron Jeremy about pizza and porn and shot it for $1,200.  MTV bought the commercial for $10,000, and it
launched his commercial career.

Melfi doesn’t proceed to make fun of his Ron Jeremy venture
or discount his work in commercials, as many “artistic” filmmakers might. “I
love commercials,” he says. “I love telling stories in a short amount of time.”
He’s working on about “two a month” at this point in his career and assures me
“they all have their good spots.” Once Melfi established a life with a
consistent income for his family, he decided to get back to his first love, writing.

After completing a few screenplays, all praised by his
agents but none landing, Melfi wrote St.
Vincent.
The story has an extremely personal origin for Melfi.  His brother passed away at 38 with an
11-year-old daughter–the mother was not around. “My wife and I adopt her and
take her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks, California. She gets this homework
assignment in her world religion class: find a Catholic Saint that inspires you
and find someone in your real life that mimics the quality of that saint and
draw a comparison.” Similar to the saint Oliver chooses in the film, she
chooses Saint William of Rochester, and then chooses Melfi himself. “It was,
like, healing for our family.” Ted couldn’t stop thinking of it, but knew it
would transform into the characters that soon became Bill Murray and Oliver.

Coupled with the personal experience of his daughter, Melfi
chose to base Vincent on his father in law. “My wife’s father was a Vietnam
vet, drank too much, smoked too much, gambled lied and cheated.” He stopped
talking to Kimberly when she was 9 and never spoke to her again. One day, she
decided to write a “Dear Dad” letter in attempt to re-connect.  Sure enough, he called soon after and they
talked for hours.  “He became her saint,
she became his saint. They reunited and became father and daughter for the last
10 years of his life. He realized he had value through her, and that’s what
Oliver does for Vincent.” Right there is the kernel of the project for Melfi, “It’s
about value.”

Upon learning the project is so personal, I’m curious how
Melfi actually approached writing the script. “The drawing board for me was to
sketch out the general structure and then to back away from it as far as I
could.” Vincent is 70, creating a generation gap between the drunken veteran
and Melfi, resembling Kimberly’s father more closely. Ted doesn’t write with
actors in mind, but people. 

“I think that the
most connected writing in the world is connected to something true and honest,
no matter what that is. Every character I write is based on something, some
personal part of me, someone I know, someone I’ve met. It just makes it clear
to my mind.”

Getting back to the crux of the story, value, I wondered
what was unresolved here. Was Melfi writing this as a form of catharsis, was it
out of a need to tell his audience, or perhaps himself, that they possess
worth? Melfi describes his experience with Jeff Kitchen, taking classes with
the screenwriting guru and learning a specifically helpful technique. “You
start any project with a question: what do I want to leave the audience with?”
With St. Vincent, it’s “every human
being has value.”

Melfi describes drawing arrows down from that point: how
will that happen? “You start to go backwards in time and all the sudden you get
to the drunk meets the kid.” After
the movie’s release, Ted has received many texts, tweets and emails, all saying
the same thing: “I cried.” He’s seen it for himself. He realized that perhaps
the reason they’re crying is because that last element landed. “That technique
has some value! He references Paul Thomas Anderson, saying that with all his
films he has an intention, whether or the movie is your taste or not.

You can fuck it up
shooting it, writing it. We fucked a lot of things up but we didn’t’ fuck that
concept up. It’s the intention that you have as a writer or director that made
that so.”

Still, Melfi hasn’t answered my question: did he need to
tell himself he had value? “Yea I
think everyone does. I think I’m a pretty good person. I’m in my forties, it
kind of happens later! Your value gets chipped away over time and the next
thing you know, you’re 65.” Melfi points out that everywhere people wonder is this it? They’re seventy, living on
retirement or social security, their kids are gone, what’s left with life? He
admits he’s thankful for his wife and family and feels valuable, but I wonder
about Kimberly’s father. “He spent his life trying to find his value and
ultimately I think life can be a lot for people. It was so much for him that he
bailed out.”

This sense of isolation compares to a moment in the film [spoiler!]
where Vincent sits next to his wife, who at this point, is just a box of ashes.
He’s broken, and when Oliver offers comfort, Vincent pushes him away with wit,
then anger. Melfi suggests, “The instinct is to push away because no one wants
to feel vulnerable, because if the dam breaks, the river is going to flow. And
it does not stop.”

This avoidance of vulnerability is fueled by Vincent’s
history as a veteran. “War is disgusting and disturbing and they’re there for us.” But when these veterans get home
that “one man’s life means nothing” doesn’t quite translate. Behaving in battle
like your life is meant for sacrifice, but having a family tell you they need
you can be confusing and propel one into that same isolation Vincent gravitates
towards. Melfi admits that our country and culture don’t take proper care of
veterans.  They’re the “bravest men and
women on the planet.” The audience may write Vincent off in the beginning of
the film, as do the characters surrounding him in the story. He’s crude, rude
and mean. But he’s also a war hero.

“You peel back the skin of the onion and start to go, this guy is amazing.” It’s the same
situation with Maggie, who Melissa McCarthy plays with both strength and palpable
weakness. She’s a hardworking mother stuck between work, a divorce and an
innocent son. “That mimics most closely to what life is. You don’t know a shit
about anyone. One day something will happen and you’ll go [makes a gibberish
noise and shakes his head in stupor].”

Melfi believes this compassionate philosophy, believing
people are more than they may appear. He still, though, must function as a
filmmaker in a town where not many are willing to let their appearances
crumble. “Los Angeles is a tricky town. I’m from New York, and in New York ‘Fuck
you’ means ‘Fuck you.’ A New Yorker will sit down and tell you his whole life
story.” LA, on the other hand, is about separation. “I don’t know how I survive
here. I have a family and I get out of here as much as I can.” Melfi is able to
pull back those layers of the people around him, eager to get his hands dirty.

“I’m an instigator
and an aggravator. I ask questions people don’t want to ask. I’m fascinated
with people. I think it’s what we’re here for.”

He believes we’re all one; his favorite film being It’s a Wonderful Life. St. Vincent has
the same message, telling people they do
matter; they can make an impact.
Recently, Melfi noticed two ladies talking outside a screening. One of them
says they cried, which was a marvel, given she’s on anti-depressants and can’t technically shed a tear.

“God forbid, there’s an emotion in a movie! It’s sentimental
and schmaltzy! What the fuck are you going to a movie for? If you don’t want an
emotion just go see action films…even Spiderman,
they have emotions! Go see those movies because you have lost sense of what art
is.” 

“Art is a catharsis. You
are supposed to go and get fucking mad and laugh and cry and have every
emotion. Otherwise, there’s no point to art. We might as well make network TV.”

He and I agree that much of that type of programming isn’t
connected to anything real. It’s a product. As much as St. Vincent could be called the same, released by the Weinsteins
and with a Hollywood cast, it’s not. If it turned out to be, that clearly wasn’t
Melfi’s intention.

“My generation and everyone below is now in a world that’s
disconnected. We have this illusion that social media, Twitter, texting these
things are connecting us more. Instead of dealing someone on the human level,
we don’t have to do that anymore. Human beings were designed, from the earliest
days as cavemen, to read faces, to fall in love with someone, to fall in
hate…to get them. We’re not emotionally connected. Entertainment has followed
suit. It has very little humanity.”

Melfi is taking a risk painting religion in a positive light,
if making a film that’s sentimental as opposed to cynical wasn’t enough. “My uncle
was a priest. My aunt was a nun. My mom was a nun.” He reveals a scandalous
love affair between his aunt Patty and uncle Tom who fell in love, got married,
and then were kicked out the church. It’s been 50 years now.  “Tom is the coolest mother on the planet.
He’s kind of the inspiration behind Chris O’Dowd’s character and a new look at
religion.” O’Dowd plays Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher in school.  “I wanted a positive depiction of what an
honest Catholic priest would be today, where he has to embrace every religion,
and no religion, and try to get people to understand that God is whoever you
want him to be at this point in your life. If you find my particular God, okay,
if you don’t, okay, but you should learn the values of being a good person and
living some of your life for others.”

Melfi is encouraged about Pope Francis: “He’s going to make
it tangible for other generations who have shunned it. “ Melfi believes this action
is developing the view of religion and encouraging a freedom to find a personal
relationship with God. “I personally have seen enough of the Catholic Church
getting beat up. Everyone does a big ‘X out’ on religion because they have an
experience. Most people nowadays haven’t even had an experience; they have a
perception. They have no idea.”

Melfi’s mission is so pure; I wonder how he preserves it. It
is Harvey Weinstein after all. “Everything you do in life is a collaboration.” Although
Bill came with the project, Weinstein wanted a second and third big star in the film. Melfi
fought for Melissa, she even volunteered to audition, and Weinstein convinced
Melfi to make the prostitute Russian and cast (poor guy!) Naomi Watts. “I
fought when I needed to fight, and you collaborate when you need to collaborate.
Be open to being wrong. Directors get stuck in I’m an auteur, this is my baby, this is my vision. To some degree
that’s a trap. I come from the script is
the boss
.” Melfi was once a stage actor, which could explain his dedication
to text. 

“When the script is
good, the best thing a director can do is get out of the way.”
 

Melfi has multiple scripts about children seeking father
figures, a subject matter that also ties into St. Vincent’s quest for value.  It’s not until the last minutes of our conversation that Melfi reveals, “My dad disappeared 19 years ago and I never saw
him again. There’s a deep part of me that will always wonder what happened to
him.” Melfi goes to therapy, and he explores his own personal life outside art.
He’s no Lars Von Trier, who openly puts his painful, demented catharsis on
screen. Melfi just wants to create stories. “My favorite filmmakers are
personal filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Spike Lee, Frank Capra, even Steven Spielberg.
He’s telling great stories.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

nullWhether immersed in a discussion with Margaret Nagle or in her film The Good Lie, one seems to forget the
materialistic obsessions of our culture. Nagle is no stranger to the industry,
with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her work as well as multiple WGA
wins. She’s battled with studios, executives and all the other elements that a
female writer has to wrestle with in the business. Her career is expansive,
encompassing writing on Boardwalk Empire,
the critically praised TV Movie Warm
Springs
and recently creating Red
Band Society
on Fox. But within the spectrum of her work is a common
thread: humanity. Many of her stories, The
Good Lie
included, explore survival. Whether an audience is watching kids
cope with cancer in The Red Band Society or
Sudanese refugees wrestling with America in The
Good Lie,
it’s impossible not to put our culture’s trifles aside and focus
on a much more visceral exploration of humanity.

It’s not often a film breaks down humanity to the basics.  The Good
Lie
is not a story about selfies, iPhones or materialism. It’s about pure
survival. It makes you wonder, do we
really need all this crap to survive?
Nagle gets to the crux of this
question with her story about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The film centers on
Jeremiah, Mamere, Abital, and Paul, a close-knit group of friends who, after
fleeing their country, grow up in a Sudanese refugee camp. 13 years later,
they’re among the lucky few who are posted on a list in the camp, given the chance
to move to America and start a new life. They meet Carrie (Reese Witherspoon),
a woman in Kansas City who helps them get settled. She takes them around to
grocery stores and factories, introducing them to the managers and hoping to
find them employment. Eventually, with her encouragement and persistence, they
find jobs. But the more they become immersed in American culture, the harder
their battle is to preserve their past culture and morals. Jeremiah (Ger Duany)
is scolded for offering a homeless woman food from the grocery store where he
works, even though he’s headed to dump it in the trash. The wasteful nature of
Americans baffles him. Paul (Emmanuel Jal) is tempted with pot by his
co-workers and struggles to maintain his work ethic while building new
friendships. Each of the characters must decide what principles to preserve and
which to sacrifice in order to build their new life.

The film took 11 years to make, with Nagle being attached to
the project, then fired, then re-attached. She never, though, lost her
emotional connection to the film. Despite an apparent difference between Nagle,
a white woman from the US, and a group of Sudanese refugees, their childhoods
possess a similar sense of survival. Despite the public, presentational
environment of our interview (we’re sitting outside Arclight surrounded by
movie-goers) Nagle soon revealed some private, intimate facts. Not only does
she only have her own tale of endurance, taking care of her disabled brother
for years, she admits that writing the film has helped her see that there is
salvation for herself and others. Freedom from guilt and healing can begin,  the catalyst being the act of sharing. Lucky
for her, that’s the beauty of film.

“I was selling purses out the trunk of my car,” Nagle states
matter-of-factly, popping a fry in her mouth. She worked a number of odd jobs
but found time to do her own writing in-between gigs. Two of her purse suppliers
were guys from Senegal whose grandfathers were from Sudan. They were going
through an adjustment, learning American culture, and Nagle became close with
them. Around the same time, she heard about the open assignment at Paramount
about the Lost Boys. She’d never been paid as a writer and just had a spec
script. Nagle is a fighter. Her agent assured her that better known writers
were up for the open assignment and that she should pursue other options. But
after urging her agent countless times, she finally got a meeting.  Soon after, she got the job. Nagle and then-producer
Robert Newmyer traveled the country and pitched the story to The Lost Boys
themselves.  They went to Atlanta, Phoenix,
San Diego and Kansas City twice.  She
wanted to create a fund for their education and knew that making a film about their
community would raise awareness. Nagle, most importantly, also wanted the Lost
Boys to “sign off on the story.” When Newmyer died of a heart attack soon
after, the Lost Boys all drove across the nation to speak at his funeral. Nagle
recalls that they said, ““Bobbie Newmyer was a Lost Boy. He was one of us.”

Nagle spent the next few years trying to get the script
made, even being fired from the project at one point. The studio wanted a
bigger-named writer. But the script eventually landed in the lands of Molly
Smith. Smith’s father had adopted a Lost Boy and put him through college. Six
months after the movie was shot, the Lost Boys told Nagle they “prayed for
Molly.” She was the producer needed to get the project jump-started.

Nagle is adamant many times throughout our chat about how
much research she did, stating that it kept the project strong.  She does “immersion writing” where she learns multiple
levels of a story. She reads every article she can on a subject and is
enthusiastic when discussing her process, clearly passionate about getting into
the psyche and circumstances of her characters. Nagle doesn’t want to meet the
people she’s writing about until she’s made a lot of decisions. With The Good Lie, she used a number of videotapes
of documentarians who couldn’t finish shooting in Sudan. The environment is
extremely volatile and many filmmakers have had to choose their own safety over
the completion of their projects. But this movie is not a documentary. The more we talk, it’s clear that the
project’s continuation isn’t only due to Nagle’s work ethic. I ask her again
what about the story kept the project
going. “Because it’s about such courage. It’s about sacrifice and the ending is
a surprise.”

Although the film is distributed by Warner Brothers and
showing at Arclight, it’s still independent in spirit. The budget was 15
million (okay, so right at the ceiling of what’s considered an indie). All the
children in the film are children of Lost Boys. Even the main actors have
backgrounds that are shockingly similar to their characters’ backgrounds. Many
of them have lost family members and have had to flee their homes. Nagle speaks
warmly about each of them. Kuoth Wiel, who plays Abital, auditioned on her cell
phone “in the library at school. She was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
She walked from Ethiopia to Sudan several times, back and forth.” Emmanuel Jal,
who plays Paul, has a big lion scar on his leg. In the film, Paul has a similar
wound on his arm. Nagle finds it coincidental. “Just so happened I had Paul
have it on his arm. He had a really, really bad life over there.” Ger Duany was
discovered by David O. Russell and appeared in I Heart Huckabees. He was
the first actor Nagle met for the film. Like his character Jeremiah, Duany is
writing his own book on transcendence. He has told Nagle that “religion can make
people do really bad things,” but that it’s how he survived. Arnold Oceng, who
plays Mamere, was raised in London after his father was killed. Nagle recalls
that he “never talked about it, ever” and “felt tremendous survival guilt.”

Up until this point in the conversation, Nagle has revealed
very little about her childhood. As we become more comfortable, she opens up,
admitting she’s often tentative about explaining her childhood to people. “I
grew up with older brothers and we were on our own.” Her parents weren’t
divorced but they were “out of commission” and “high-functioning alcoholics.” Nagle
and her brother took care of their other brother who was disabled through a car
accident, leaving him a quadriplegic, with brain damage. From a young
age, Nagle, too, was forced to learn to survive. The roots are coming together
now. Nagle is Mamere, but also Abital; she had two brothers were “allowed to be
very sexist” towards her. Her parents were in denial.

The parallels are becoming clear. The film’s main character,
Mamere, is fueled by guilt.  At the
beginning of the film, as a child, he lets his brother Theo (Femi Oguns) sacrifice
himself. As the children hide in the brush, Theo rises and tells approaching
soldiers that he is the only one around. He’s then taken away and the other
children are able to escape. I ask if Nagle has been driven by her guilt over
her brother as well. She admits, “I was so scared to live my own life and leave
him behind.” Finally in Chicago as a young adult, Nagle’s therapist put her in
a group with Holocaust survivors. Although she was initially reluctant, her
therapist urged that she, too, had been through a traumatic experience and that
she was “very self- destructive” in ways she couldn’t even understand. She
didn’t agree until the group finally called her out. “You’re full of shit! What
you’ve gone through is terrible!” Eventually, Nagle was able to accept that she
had survived something. Like Nagle,
her characters struggle to not only talk about their past, but accept it.

This film isn’t about wallowing in past trauma; it’s about
liberating oneself from it. We learn late in the film that Carrie lost a sister.  When she invites Abital to live with her, she
begins to discuss how it’s affected her. Through sharing their guilt, their
pain, the characters begin to reach healing. Nagle stops after we draw the
connection: “Oh my god! I can’t believe you’re pointing this out to me!” Her
time with the group validated her pain in the same way Abital validates Carrie.
At this point, Nagle reveals perhaps the most touching moment in our talk. In
the film Mamere and his brother have a game. They draw a square in the sand and
put their hands on top of each other. It’s one of those intimate idiosyncrasies
siblings share.  Nagle did the same with
her brother. “He’d put his hand on the bed and I’d make a line in the sheets.”

It’s Nagle’s personal connection to the film, on the deepest
levels, that makes it so raw. But Nagle has more goals than just personal
catharsis. There aren’t schools in the refugee camps and Nagle stresses, “We
can’t solve the war in Sudan, we can’t change the religious differences. We can
make these camps better for the people that are living in them.” The Good Lie has been screening every
night in Washington, D.C.  UNICEF, Oxfam,
and the Enough Project have all come on board. Nagle is adamant: “How do we
turn this into policy? How do you shift things? It’s so tragic that we’re
allowing these really minor things to divide us. Jeremiah has a last narration
in the film and talks about our common humanity. We share this big world we
call home. For the future of mankind, we’ve got to come together.”

Nagle is undeniably inspiring. Nagle’s passion has again
made me note my materialistic surroundings. Why is everyone around me jamming
in the parking lot with their gas-guzzling cars to flock to see Gone Girl, about bad people doing bad
things to each other? Nagle is clearly calling for the opposite.

“The film is going to be more than just a film. I’m so
proud. I get very choked up because it’s what I wanted.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

nullTim Sutton is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose first film Pavilion was part of the IFP Narrative Lab
and opened at SXSW in 2012. Memphis, his
second feature, played at the Venice Film Festival and Sundance last year. But unlike many other indie filmmakers,
Sutton isn’t splashed across social media, documenting his filmmaking via Instagram
or Twitter. So when I went to meet him at the Chateau Marmont lounge in West
Hollywood, I had no idea who to look for. To my luck, his familiar publicist introduced
us, two white wines on the table next to a shabby/chic couch. Sutton smiled,
hair half grey, round glasses and a button down. Sutton and I immediately got
to chatting about our love for New York City and how trendy Bed Sty has become.
Like Memphis, New York City can be a place for wanderers, for people searching
for internal, eternal answers. It turns out that Sutton, like his main
character in Memphis, is on a
spiritual journey to burn down structure in search of the sublime.

I should preface that Sutton isn’t as dreamy or bohemian as
his work might suggest. He’s a very humble, regular man who, like me, still
finds hanging at Chateau exciting. His everyman mood is exactly what makes his
introspective film that much more palpable. Although the themes may be lofty,
they’re grounded, like Sutton, in a very universal battle: the struggle for simple human
happiness.

Memphis was lyrical,
vacillating between narrative and documentary, an intriguing portrayal of
Willis, a gifted singer in search of wisdom. But the film is just as much a
jewel as it is a challenge; the elusive story and nearly non-existent plot are undeniably
polarizing. The film isn’t easy to watch and takes an immense amount of focus
with an elusive payoff. Some may walk away feeling that their time was wasted, while
others might feel enlightened. Sutton admits, “Thirty people walked out of the
press screening” at Sundance. The film was first developed through the Venice
Biennale College-Cinema. The program cultivates and enriches projects that go
on to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Memphis grew out of the highly respected program but premiered at the festival
to little praise.

Despite its divided audiences, Memphis continues to gain an impressive amount of steam, finally
premiering in LA last week.  It’s not
targeting mainstream viewers, but instead critics and audiences that are
interested in uncovering indie gems. Sutton is approaching cinema in an
exciting, intimate way, vulnerably and without the pressure to meet audience
expectations. He’s not concerned with resolution or moral lessons encapsulated
in happy endings.

“I’m not trying to be a rebel, to break rules, I’m just trying to find myself
in this universe and be okay not knowing.”

At the center of the story is Willis (Willis Earl Beal), a
wanderer. Sutton glows, clearly passionate, when we start to discuss the
character in detail.  He “has all the
gifts from God… and people want success for him. What he wants is elusive. It’s
glory. In a way it’s searching for identity, life, satisfaction, some version
of success.” It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Memphis and Gus Van Sant’s Last
Days.
Van Sant focuses on Kurt Cobain (Michael Pitt) in the same way Sutton
frames Willis. They let their subjects roam, unrestrained, and follow them like
a documentarian might. The films are moving portraits.

The entire film hinges on Beal’s performance, a
collaborative partnership that Sutton refers to as a “cosmic occurrence.”
Sutton didn’t go through casting directors or reach out to Willis’ agents. His
producer John Baker sent him “ a clip that was on Pitchfork of [Willis] singing
a song into a cell phone on his grandmother’s back porch. It’s nothing; it’s
for no one.” Sutton was sure, though, that he could center his film on Beal,
saying “he is living something in that song.” He admits their first meeting felt
unusual, when they met in “New York City on the Upper East Side in a Chinese
restaurant and Willis ordered a scotch.” Willis’ wife also joined the meeting,
which Sutton didn’t expect. Everything about their relationship is admittedly like Oscar and Felix, but somehow their journeys are similar. “I was writing Willis Earl
Beal’s life without knowing who he was. He was living my movie without knowing
who I was. I hate to be all like flighty about it, but it’s prophecy!”

“It’s a totally autobiographical movie.” Sutton stresses that,
even though he’s not from the south or a singer, “It’s me.”

“I’m a very spiritual person in the same way that Willis is. I believe
in brain waves and signs and nature and the power of the sun and the moon. What
is it telling me? I have no idea, but it fills me.”

Another crucial part of the film is the city of Memphis.
Sutton has a long past with the location, first traveling there when he was 21
years old. “I found the place where people like me don’t go to. It was an
astounding event. I danced all night. Something was happening there that I felt
like nobody gets to experience. It stuck with me.” Sutton encapsulates the
broken landscape, filling the movie with abandoned buildings, lush forests and
the fascinating populace itself. “Memphis is a town where some of the greatest
singers of the world came out.  Some of
them were buried in unmarked graves. There’s a curse in Memphis, as a much as a
blessing. There are beautiful trees and churches on every block, but across the
street is a liquor store and a pawn shop. The rich and the poor, the black and
white. It’s like a volcano.”

That same juxtaposition also exists in Los Angeles,
melancholia and glamour, irrefutably at its peak at the Marmont.  It’s a guilty pleasure to talk about with a
filmmaker while sipping chardonnay. But the parallels, as lofty as they may be,
are clear between Memphis and the soul of an artist like Willis.
 

That conflict, finding glory and happiness but also
portraying ugliness and sorrow to be a decent artist, is the crux of Willis’s
story. How does a city like Memphis preserve its culture, but escape its
poverty? Tim doesn’t provide answers, just posing the questions. There’s no big
Hollywood bow at the end, which some may find maddening and others liberating.

Tim’s search for the sublime has been in his blood for
years. I ask him about his childhood, for a circumstance he can pinpoint as the
beginning. Immediately, he refers to the story of John Henry, a book his mom
read to him and which he even continues to give as a gift. “The last image in
that is him busting through a tunnel, into an orange infinity, and then he
dies. That image took on such mystical power in my mind over the past 30 years
that it became this psychedelic story that I could make, that Willis becomes
this image; and he does. My father died when I was 9 years old. I’ve been
searching for that elusive figure ever since.”

Locating Sutton and his background firmly is just as
difficult as doing so with Willis.  Where
did he come from? He laughs, “At the
age of 25 I thought I was going to win Sundance Film Festival and be a hero.
But I did not do that.” He then set a goal to make a feature by thirty, but
life got in the way.  He worked at Getty
Images for four years in the footage department with a $200,000 yearly budget
to make pretty much whatever he wanted. “I started working with this DP and
started doing silent short films. “ They developed a language together,
learning to build a curious, beautiful world around their subjects.
 

He didn’t make his first feature till he was 38. By that
time, he was also a father: “I was more assured in myself as far as a leader in
an honest way.” This confidence was key in the making of Memphis, a project that, given its spontaneous shooting format,
could have gone totally wrong. But Sutton didn’t try to control his team on set
or off.  He focused on “empowering” his
colleagues instead of controlling them.

Sutton describes his hobbies as a kid, some of which inform
his current ability to work in such a fluid, trusting fashion. “I was into
soccer because it was amorphous.” For a time, he also considered being a jazz
critic. “Everyone goes their separate ways, and then somehow they all know how
to come back into a certain form and then go out again.” He is fascinated with
the idea of making something “shapeless” and “liquid.”

“In my filmmaking I’m completely in the present. I’m completely where I
probably can’t be in my real life. That’s my dream life, to be constantly in
the present.”

Memphis can be
included, rightfully so, in the current discussion about breaking structure and
the rapidly growing viewing platforms. Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon and a number
of other outlets are at the forefront of a viewing revolution: the media are no longer constrained by time. Audiences
can consume them in a variety of ways. This is exactly what makes Memphis pertinent. Sutton is not just talking about re-evaluating structure,
like every TV executive. He actually did it. “You have to be
open to the void, utter disaster. What you’re making is a living document.” He
focused more on the feelings than sticking to a standard plot, especially when
presenting his 40-page script at the Venice Biennale.

He also chose a producer, John Baker, who has worked in
documentary film. He didn’t want a “set” or actors who had “agents’ schedules.”
Instead, he found people who were ready to “glow on film.” He steered clear of
directing on set, but would prompt his actors with simple questions, such as, “I want to
know what you think about love.” Walking up to people in Memphis and talking to
them about making the film in thier city wasn’t a hard sell. Sutton told them, “It’s got to be you.”
“No one says it’s got to be you to these guys.” His film is a platform for
these people whose stories would otherwise go untold. He gives them the power
and confidence to share.

This documentary-style, raw, shapeless feeling of the film
both pulls viewers in and pushes some of them away. Sutton, though, is moving on to a
new project that he hopes will shape his filmmaking further, and perhaps leave fewer
audience members behind. “Instead of being about a dream world, it’s very much
of this world and it’s based around a horrible tragedy. Pavilion was about discovery, youth. Memphis is about pure experimentation. It’s abstract. This third
film will be about executing the form in a way that’s more recognizable to
people.”

Sutton makes us wonder why we categorize new filmmakers that
come around, especially on the festival circuit. Are they dramatic directors,
dark comedy directors, or activists for a cause? Sutton proves that perhaps an exciting
new artist can’t be pigeonholed in this way. His work suggests a little bit of every genre
and every tone. But Sutton reveals, “The nicest thing someone has said about my
filmmaking is that it’s like lotion. It becomes part of your skin, something
that’s physical.”  As much as Sutton
wants his work to wash over you, he isn’t pretentious about it. His work may
resemble Terrence Malick’s, with sparse dialogue and lyrical visual sequences.
But Sutton isn’t demanding you sit and watch people run their fingers through
brush for three hours. That, or search for existential meaning in every moment. “I’m
purposely leaving the door open for people to let their minds wonder, to think
for themselves, to watch and consider, to meditate on it.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline,  Paste,
Flaunt and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Kevin Kline on MY OLD LADY, THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD, and His 26-Year-Old Self

Kevin Kline on MY OLD LADY, THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD, and His 26-Year-Old Self

null
Kevin Kline has
studied at Juilliard, played Shakespearean icons like King Lear and Hamlet, won
two Tony Awards, been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, and, justifiably, won an
Oscar. He has two new films out this month, My
Old Lady
and The Last of Robin Hood and
gives two vastly different but incredibly inspiring performances.

In My Old Lady, Kline
plays Mathias, an American who moves to Paris to claim an apartment he’s
inherited. He soon discovers Mathilde (Maggie Smith), a tenant who still lives
in the home and refuses to budge. Her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas) is insistent
on their right to the Parisian home and although she creates initial conflict
for Mathias, she soon propels him into a journey of self-discovery and family
reflection. The film is an adaptation of
the play by Israel Horovitz, who also directed. 

Kline also plays Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood. The film centers
on the scandalous romance between the aging movie star and young actress
Beverly Aadland.

Kline discussed what drew him to
these roles, the importance of his training, and his first time on Broadway.

MA:
“We think
we’ve been cursed by God; we’ve been cursed by our parents.” This line from My Old Lady really illuminates the core
of the story, moving past relying on your family. Was this an avenue for you
into the project? Did it strike a chord personally?

KK: It’s indicative
of the kind of lines [Israel] writes. [The play is] very
serious about parental curse and fate and the narrative we compose for ourselves: these merciful revelations that we find out, life isn’t what we thought, which is part of any good story. Israel
had done something unique in this particular mix of comedy and drama and
romance. You don’t get to see characters in
movies that say, ‘‘I’ve been cursed by God!” This guy is very self destructive, flagellating while blaming everyone else for all
his woes, and then eventually, strangely reconciling what he thought his past was with
his present. It was unusual, with recognizable, human characters.



MA: So much of Mathias’
turmoil lies in the Viager, this elusive French equity-release contract. How
does that illuminate the American-European divide?

KK:
It’s an old
thing.  It dates back to the Napoleonic
era. They are still very popular. There are similar situations where you can
buy an apartment cheaply but you can’t take possession till the person dies. It
is characteristically French and says something about their culture. Mathias
says cynically, “So you’re betting on somebody dying soon?” You can also look
at it as buying a place and giving money to someone who can live out their
years there. There’s something quite positive about it, too.

MA: Mathias is an
aging man, but at the same time so much a child because he hasn’t coped with
his past.  How do you begin developing
him? Do you pull a Stanislavsky and give yourself specific given circumstances
from his youth?

KK: I think
a lot of it’s instinctual but so much of it dredges up, it’s right there on the
tip of his tongue, the edge of his consciousness. That’s easy to give voice to.
He’s got all his opinions about what his life has been. A lot of that is
spelled out in the play. Of course you had to visualize and think through more detail
about what his childhood was like, but [Horovitz] spells it out.


MA:
What enticed you about both of these roles? Both Mathias and Errol Flynn have such
psychological complexity.

KK:
It’s hard to
make a comparison but you could say both of those characters had messy lives. In My Old Lady the
psychological complexity, to be 58 and really kind of lost and trying
desperately to make some sense of his life, that was the attraction. With Errol
Flynn, this was a man who was the highest paid, most successful movie star and
now he’s at the tail end of his career, and it’s caught up with him. That
character was determined to be Flynn no matter what and was defiantly himself to
the very end. With [Mathias] there’s still hope for change, which happens. Both
of them are complicated fellows. And especially with My Old Lady there was something about that second chance, still
learning. Young people think that old people have it all figured out.  (Joking) I’ve got it all figured out, most of
us don’t!

MA: With more
robust roles like Errol Flynn or Falstaff, which you’ve played, is there a physicality
that allows you do build a character from the outside in?

KK:
Very similar
characters! Very Falstaff-ian! Flynn is very funny, very witty and a jokester
and a prankster and a life force! With Falstaff, he is a corrupter
of youth! They played by their own rules. With Falstaff you put the
fat suit on, but this appetite that Falstaff and Flynn had, enormous, sensuous appetites,
there’s another physical transformation. Flynn was a great athlete. In his youth he was a
boxer and a diver and a swimmer! He would spar with professional boxers! He
broke his back a few times. There’s physicality to that. It’s working from the
outside in and inside out, and then you meet somewhere. Because you’re shooting out of
sequence, there’s not a lot of time for experimentation.

MA: Given there’s
not that time for investigating on set, training is obviously important in films. How crucial was
your time at Julliard? What set that apart from just being on set and learning
from actual experience?

KK: Training can
be important for some actors, for other actors they don’t need it. Film acting
is not stage acting. If you’re interested in classical theatre, the training is
helpful and you have to learn to forget some of the things you’re taught in
school. You have to find your own way. Julliard provided a place to practice, although
it was very competitive. Give me an opening night on Broadway with all the
critics there any day over an acting class! But if I had just gone from
college into a sitcom, and just played the same kind of role over and over, I
would never have had the confidence to try Shakespeare or comedy! I was usually
the leading man! It’s understanding what style is and tone and differentiating
and stretching yourself as an actor. In terms of the confidence, I know how to
work with this elevated language because I’ve done it and come to a certain
reconciliation.

MA: You made your
Broadway debut in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.
Looking back now, what would you tell yourself on that
first opening night?

KK: It’s funny
because I remember that opening night! I was 26 years old in The Three Sisters, which may be my favorite
play in this world to this day! I was having a go at it. John Houseman was backstage, saying “Don’t do that melancholy Midwestern thing!” A half hour before I’m going
on in the first preview! I think he was saying that my Midwestern upbringing
made me bring some melancholy aspect to the character. That’s something you say
during the 6-week rehearsal process! That’s a producer for you! What advice? Don’t be dissuaded by bad reviews. I performed four plays in repertory in a period of four weeks, and was reviewed by all the first string critics during this time. Some actors
take 10 years for that horrific experience!  Don’t be too hard on yourself. One thing they
don’t teach you in drama school is how not to let a director screw you up in a
performance. That’s something you learn. Where you’ve compromised yourself. It’s pleasing the director but not me. It’s
not what I’m really here for
. That takes years to learn. You have to be
patient! It’s also what William Goldman said about Hollywood, “No one knows
anything!” No one knows. Doubt everything. And find your own way. And don’t
stop going to the theater!

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

John Lithgow on Process, His Past and Playing an Artist in LOVE IS STRANGE

John Lithgow on Process, His Past and Playing an Artist in LOVE IS STRANGE

nullLithgow is one
of the most versatile actors of our time. When I learned I’d have a chance to
chat with him, I wondered how I could possibly cover the expansive portfolio of
his work. But his character in Love is Strange
is beautifully similar to Lithgow himself, who is also a painter; this made the conversation considerably easier. It turns out
there were many things I didn’t know about Lithgow, including his adoration for
painting, Alfred Molina, and how he grew up going to poetry readings on Bleecker
Street.   

In the film, directed and written by Ira Sachs,
Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as Ben and George, two artists struggling to
find a home after George looses his job. They are divided in New York City; Ben
forced to crash with Kate (Marisa Tomei) and George with his friend Ted
(Cheyenne Jackson). It’s an honest film with a subtle, poignant comedy,
exploring the challenges of being an aging artist and what it means to maintain
a partnership.

MA: You’ve played some over-the-top characters and it was nice
to see you play someone simple and raw. Was that something that drew you to the
character in the first place?

JL: Very much so. Everything drew me to it. I read the script
and I just wanted to do nothing else. You read something like this, and you know
this is going to be so exquisite. Fred was already set when I was hired for it,
and I knew the relationship would be perfect.

MA: Watching the film, I felt like it was a relationship, where
you had known each other previously.

JL: We did know each other very well. We’d never worked
together. There had been a couple of odd things that had brought us together.
The real thing we had in common was a very dear friend, Ileen Getz, who passed
away of cancer. We hung out together on her hospital ward. This was about 10
years ago.

MA: What an intimate way to get to know someone.

JL: I really saw what a big heart he had, and a wonderful sense
of humor. He’s just a great stage actor. I knew it was going to be effortless,
and it was.

MA: There is that sense of humor about the script, even though
there are some dark moments. Did Ira allow the actors to include their own
humor?

JL: We talked about humor very specifically. The wonderful scene
between Marisa and me where I’m talking and she’s trying to work sold me on the
project. It plays like a sitcom scene and it’s completely real. Ben is this
wonderful character, in equal measure, adorable and infuriating!

MA: It reminded me of Harry
and the Hendersons!
 It’s the same
sort of endearing character.

JL: (Laughing) Yes! A character that comes and throws everyone
off their game! Ben is an artist, a kind of abstraction. I have this lovely
moment in the film where [George and I} are dealing with a real-estate woman.
I’m listening; I’m trying to be good. Then suddenly I drift off and start
thinking about something else. That’s an artist. An artist is always thinking
of something else. My father was like that. He had this feeling of abstraction
and I do too. I just put it to work for Ben. When I do a painting, I can sit
for 15 minutes and look at the painting.

MA: Didn’t the film use your own work?

JL: I did this collaboration with a very big painter Boris Torres,
Ira’s husband. We worked together because I joined the film halfway through the
shooting, and they had to have the paintings. So he did the paintings based on
my techniques so that when I actually painted I was painting something he had
already half done.  The only time you
really see one of my paintings is in one of the very first scenes. I walk into
the kitchen, and the camera follows me and stops on a painting of a boy on the
deck of a ship. That’s my painting.

MA: There’s a moment where your nephew’s son comes up onto the
roof where you’re painting and says, “You’re not even that good.” You say, “You
don’t mean that!” That felt like what the core of the film is, the struggle of
the artist. 

JL: I choked up even reminiscing about that scene. It devastates
me when I see it! He’s not a great artist, he’s a perfectly good artist but he’s
certainly not a successful artist. Ira spent a lot of time talking about just
how good or bad he is. He’s a nice, but not a successful, one.

MA: Do you think there’s a difference between people who are successful and people who are truly
good artists? 

JL: There’s a huge difference. I really prize and love great painting.
It’s so out of date now. It’s slightly come back in. Painting is being valued
again, but twenty years ago you’d go to art school and they wouldn’t even teach
painting! They would send you off to do a plaster caste of a racecar or
something! That’s the nice thing. He’s a good old-fashioned painter.

MA: There’s that old-fashioned element in the film. I picture you
and Alfred… I feel like I don’t know him well enough to say Fred!

JL: You can say Fred!

MA: I picture you and Fred, your younger selves, doing what you
do in this film. Did you live that life of couch hopping in New York City?

JL: Not really. I was married very young. I lived a very middle
class life. I was married at age 21, divorced at 31. I didn’t sleep on people’s
couches.

MA: Was it interesting to play a character with that lifestyle?

JL: I went to Princeton High School, when I was very serious
about being an artist. I was in a theatre family but I didn’t want to become an
actor. Every Saturday I would go into New York to take figure-drawing lessons
at the Art Students League. Those were fabulous days. I was 15, 16, 17 years
old. This movie Inside Llewyn Davis,
that was the life I lived, going to those folky clubs, listening to poetry
readings on Bleecker Street. That’s the closest I came to it. I certainly had my
years as an out of work actor but I was married with a baby. My wife was
supporting us.

MA: I have friends that are 25 living the life that your
character lives in the film, going what
am I doing with my life, I’m out of work, what is my craft?
Given I now
know you lived a different lifestyle, how did you relate?

JL: You play a part and it’s a leap of imagination. To me it was
all there in the writing. Fred and I brought so much of ourselves. Ira has a
way of reaching into the actor’s experience and putting it to work. He had a
very interesting work method. I was making a film in Calgary. Fred was living
in LA. Ira flew out and spent two days with me, two days with Fred and never
wanted us to work together. We just talked and went through the script line by
line, never wanted me to perform it at all, save it all for the actual
experience of acting with Fred. We just answered all these questions about
Ben’s backstory. The first thing Fred and I shot was singing on that piano
bench. We hadn’t done any other scenes and you think they’ve been together for
forty years. Who knows how we accessed that, but it happened.

MA: If you guys didn’t rehearse, how did you guys feel
comfortable with each other’s bodies?

JL: We were just comfortable with each other’s bodies. I wish
you could meet him. He is the most adorable, accessible man, so available,
wonderful to act with. You just feel an automatic connection with him. The
camera stops, and that connection goes on. 
He would make me laugh so hard. We would tell each other jokes and get
crippled with laughter.

MA: Are there other actors you’ve worked with that you had that
companionship with?

JL: This had been pretty unusual. I’ve had that on stage in a
lot of things. M. Butterfly with BD
Wong, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with
Leo Butz, Sweet Smell of Success with
Brian d’Arcy James.

MA: Do you think in theater there’s more of an opportunity for
that intimacy?

JL: It all depends on the material.
 

MA: Have you ever thought about playing King Lear?

JL: Why do you think I have a beard? I’m playing it this summer!
In Central Park! How did you-what
occurred to you to ask that? I just spent the past two months learning the
role! 

MA: Are you really? I’ve been reading the play recently!

JL: "Darkness and devils! Saddle my horses; call my
train together. Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble thee. Yet have I left a
daughter!" I could do the
whole role for you right now. You have to come see it.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

Peter Sarsgaard: On NIGHT MOVES, Marine Biology, and Blowing Up Dams

Peter Sarsgaard: On NIGHT MOVES, Marine Biology, and Blowing Up Dams

null

When I think of Peter Sarsgaard, I think of An Education. I think of him breaking Carey Mulligan’s
heart, and then devastating others in Boys
Don’t Cry.
I think of him as the creepy villain in Green Lantern, the slippery student in Kinsey, and Linda’s awful boyfriend in Lovelace. Common denominator: bad guys.

In Night Moves, directed
by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old
Joy)
Sarsgaard stars opposite Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg as
environmentalists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Recently we discussed his own
personal activism, passions, past, and perhaps why he’s so drawn to play those
“evil” characters.

MA: Your father was
in the air force and your family traveled a lot when you were a child. Did this
ignite your inclination towards acting, to play different characters in
different environments?
 

PS: I mean I don’t think it got me interested in acting. I
think it might be what makes it so that I can have the idea of the variety of
people in the world, different incomes. That helps. When you’re going to play
someone it’s interesting and nice to see experiences that aren’t like yours.
But there’s always the remarkable similarity of all people.

MA: What made you decide to become an actor? 

PS: I was at Washington University in St. Louis. I thought
of myself as an athlete and a writer.  I’d gotten concussions and injuries playing
soccer so I quit and I needed something to fill my time. I never daydreamed
about being an actor, although my interest in literature was in Shakespeare.  

MA: Was there ever a
different path you considered choosing, or still consider today?

PS: Marine Biologist.

MA: Why Marine
Biology?

PS: Because the oceans are pretty unexplored places and the
final frontier on our planet; also because they’re the source of life. There
are dramatic things happening to them at the moment, and they’re worth exploring.  

MA: You were raised
Roman Catholic. You’ve said that something that always fascinated you was the
concept that you’re supposed to love your enemy. Did this influence your work
with evil characters, John Lotter in Boys
Don’t Cry
being one of them? How do you access that?

PS: “Evil characters” is not something I would ever have
thought of them as. It may have been my upbringing in Catholicism, may have
been me. It’s not helpful to think of anyone as evil. I’ve always looked at the
world as a place where people have done evil things. There are people in the world, for instance, that would describe Americans
as evil.

MA: Who’s the most
frightening person you’ve ever played?

PS: Who would I least want to hang out with? Probably John
Lotter. I guess I have a place of understanding for everyone I’ve
played.

MA: Who was the most
challenging?

PS: I always had a very hard time connecting to Chuck in
Lovelace. With John Lotter, it was understood thoroughly why he was doing what he’s
doing. Chuck was like a big baby, super destructive
and self-serving. 

MA: How did becoming a husband and then a father change your work as an actor?

PS: I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, my daughter is
desperate for me to do something she can watch. That’s not really up to me!

MA: You need to play
a Disney villain.

PS: I could segue into it by playing the voice of a bad guy,
maybe, and go from there! 

MA: Do you use your
family as emotional triggers in your work or try to steer clear of that type of
personalization in your method?

PS: It’s all personalization. There’s nothing else. It has
nothing to do with the people immediately around me. It’s more self-oriented
than that. I’ve done my best work when I’m away from my family. 

MA: What are your
methods, or does it depend on the film?

PS: It depends. If no one on the movie has met me before or knows
me, that’s the easiest. I don’t do a lot of things that don’t relate
to being the person. I will try to keep it going for my other actors. I want
them to do the least amount of pretending as possible.

MA: In Night Moves, the characters take an
environmental issue into their own hands, blowing up a hydroelectric dam. Is
there any issue you are this passionate about?

PS: The death penalty. My first movie was Dead Man Walking. I was around people
that really felt strongly about it, and they made me think about it. Usually the
way I think someone is radicalized is through a personal experience. The thing about environmental activism is that we are all having a personal experience
with our environment, whether we open our eyes or not. I think these people [in Night Moves] are not able to disassociate
as well as some people. A lot of us don’t hear the DefCon 5 alarm bell ringing
as loud as these people do.

MA: How has being a
working actor given you a platform for your political, environmental or social
activism?
 

PS: When I did The
Killing
, I did that part because I felt it explored the issue
in a way that was challenging. A lot of people, practically all the way through,
thought this person was supposed to die. I believe even the guilty should
not be killed. We can all agree that the 4% of people on death row that are innocent
is a big problem. That’s how I’ve used it.

MA: What was the most
interesting thing you learned working with Kelly Reichardt? What was it like on
set?

PA: It doesn’t feel like anything to be in Kelly’s movies.
There’s not that performance feeling, ever. You’re not opening on Broadway. Kelly
wants it to be easy, without a lot of fretting.
She values the way in which people don’t think about what they’re doing. In
life, people turn on the radio and end up singing to James Taylor on the way to
blow up a dam. It’s difficult to keep a thought like that in your mind.

MA: What’s an
aspiration you have in life apart from something in the arts?

PS: I would like to sail across the Atlantic. I would like
the experience of being that far away from land.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

Atom Egoyan Discusses Seeking Truth with DEVIL’S KNOT

Atom Egoyan Discusses Seeking Truth with DEVIL’S KNOT

nullThe case of the West Memphis Three has been dissected, inspected and interpreted for years. In 1994 three teenagers were tried and convicted of the murder of
three young boys in Memphis, Arkansas. They were accused of involving Satanic
ritual in the killing. During their life sentence in jail, their innocence was in
question. Musicians, activists and artists have raised the question for years: Who was really to blame in this modern day
witch-hunt?

The
Paradise Lost documentary trilogy explored the verdict, gaining
support when Metallica offered their music to the soundtrack. Amy Berg’s
documentary West of Memphis premiered with success at Sundance in 2012, produced by Peter Jackson. Novels have explored the case as well, such
as Blood of Innocents by Guy Reel and Devil’s Knot by
Mara Leveritt, the latter of which inspired Atom Egoyan
’s film.

Egoyan,
known for his incredible The Sweet
Hereafter
and breakout film Exotica, directs
this narrative adaptation. Reese Witherspoon came on board the project on early
to produce and star as Pam Hobbs, mother to one of the deceased children. Colin
Firth, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Stephen Moyer and Kevin Durand round out the cast.

I had a moment to speak with Egoyan, eager to
discover his own intention in revisiting the case. He reveals his personal
motivations for making the movie, how he handles actors, their boundaries and
his troubling search for justice.

MA: The West Memphis
Three were released from prison in 2011. Did you spend any time with them or immerse
yourself in study of the judicial system in preparation for the film

AE: I spent time with Jason [Baldwin] certainly. In
terms of preparing for the film, really it was a film that was concentrated on
what happened in that town 20 years ago. Looking at all the possible other
avenues that the court did not explore, to me, that was the intention.
I think whats most
troubling about this case is that there were so many routes that were not
followed. The trial was
handicapped by a judge who clearly had an agenda. This was the most horrifying crime
scene imaginable. It was also supernatural because there wasn’t any
hard evidence. Its as though
these evil perpetrators had to be created. The film is trying to show that you cannot use circumstantial evidence
unless all other avenues are completely exhausted. The film is presenting the
full spectrum.

MA: Both Devil’s Knot and The
Sweet Hereafter
center on a tragedy that affects a community. What
fascinates you about exploring this ripple effect of mourning, sanity, and
blame? 

AE: Im Armenian,
and April 24th was the 99th commemoration of the genocide. The perpetrator never
admitted the crime. I was raised with that, this question: how do you actually find
the truth
of such a traumatic event? Im obsessed
with that issue. I find it deeply upsetting when I see justice not being served.
How do we as human beings deal with the unknown? The West Memphis Three trial is a joke on so many different levels.
The documentary [West of Memphis] actually finds in its structure a person who should have
been followed. Even that is a dramatic solution thats convenient. But there so many other elements of
drama and mystery. Were still living with this ambiguity. That is so
troubling. I wanted to create this sense that it‘s unresolved.

MA: Many of your films have elements of the thriller
genre, withholding key information from the audience early on. You did so in this film and
also in Exotica. Tell
me about this withholding and how you use it to build
tension.

AE: Thats a really good question because it’s a little
perverse,
the way it‘s
done in this film. The audience expects Colin Firth to come in as the knight in shining armor, Atticus Finch. Hes the
gentleman in the southern court. To see hes excluded in the court
in one scene subverts our expectation. It has all the elements of a courtroom
thriller. It was also very unusual and Im actually obsessed with the idea, because I’ve seen justice not
served, that the only justice is acknowledgement between two individuals. This happens between Reese and Colin in the forest at one point: something is fucked up and is deeply upsetting.
Sometimes thats where
healing can maybe begin.

MA:
Reese Witherspoon really championed this film early on. What was
your relationship with her
on set, considering she also produced the project?

AE:
The thing thats amazing about Reese in this movie is that shes so generous. Shes part of
this fabric, and she was prepared to plunge into that and not look like a
Hollywood star. She was prepared to be this mom who lost her son. She was so concerned
that it be tonally right, that it not use any clichés.
Ultimately
, the forest is a place
steeped in religion and belief. What happened in the forest
was
so demonic. In absence of evidence, demons had to be
conjured in the courtroom.

MA:
Colin Firth is an incredible actor and Dane DeHaan has an incredibly
promising career ahead of him. What did you learn from working with both
actors, given theyre at opposite
ends of the spectrum when it comes to experience?

AE:
I have to admit that this whole
experience is overwhelming because I couldn’t believe the caliber of
actor drawn to this project. I was in awe of these actors. Dane was mind-blowingly great in
this role. Mireille is so great in this tiny role, I cast her in my next film. Kevin Durand, every one of these actors,
became really possessed. The film was unique this way, it existed in this pocket of consciousness. Chris Morgans interviews in that room are online. Dane got to reincarnate that character. Hes replicating whats on that tape.

MA:
Many directors have pushed their actors to dangerous places. We recently
read the backlash from the actors in Blue
is the Warmest Colour.
 Have you ever had a moment where you had to
pull an actor back
from that place
? That, or push them forward, but with a watching eye?

AE:
Every actor has a different
temperament. Part of my job is to know what those boundaries are. The actor has
to know youll be there
at the other end, that youre trying
to represent
them in the best light, who they are as theyre harnessing these roles. The methods vary
from actor to actor. With this film, all these great actors in the
courtroom
were in this place
together. They got to share that with their fellow actors in this theatrical way.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.

David Gordon Green on Challenging the Audience and Challenging the Character

David Gordon Green on Challenging the Audience and Challenging the Character

nullDavid Gordon Green has proved himself to be a remarkably flexible and unpredictable
filmmaker. After All the Real Girls, he has vacillated between blockbuster
comedy and intimate indie. His evolution from George Washington to Pineapple
Express
to Prince Avalanche brings
him now to Joe.

In this dark drama, Nicolas Cage plays Joe, an
ex-con who befriends a young boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan). The boy’s abusive father
Wade (Gary Poulter) only further ignites Joe’s urge to step in as a father
figure. As Gary’s safety is pushed to dangerous limits, Joe must decide what
he’s willing to sacrifice and where his redemption lies.

I chatted with Green at The Four
Seasons in LA this week about his complex film. It was refreshing to see such a respectable filmmaker be so
incredibly personable. After a few Texas hellos, we got down to business, as Green revealed insights on his film family, his role as a
ringmaster of sorts, and the complexities of Joe’s characters: Green has always had to ability to make his subjects simultaneously monstrous
and sympathetic.  

Meredith Alloway: You’ve said that
the story of Joe is ultimately about people that sculpt your life. It’s fitting that
screenwriter Gary Hawkins has been such an inspiration for you. Was that a
theme you were interested in exploring? 

David Gordon Green: Yes. It certainly was. Everybody has father figures or
older brothers or inspirational teachers or gurus of their lives that help keep
them on track. For me, it’s a perfect circle in a lot of ways because Gary
Hawkins was a very valuable professor of mine in college. He introduced me to
the work of Charles Burnett, Jerry Shatzberg, Polanski, [and] Terrence Malick.
A lot of these guys that have become very influential in my movie-loving
appetite were introduced to me by a guy who knew I would connect with the regional stories and voices of these directors. Having met Gary, who had a taste
that was a little left of center and saw that little twinkle in my eye when I
started to discover these films, it’s amazing to now be collaborating with him
on a professional level. He introduced me to Larry Brown, the novelist who wrote the book Joe is based on. My first job was working on a
documentary about Larry, with Jeff Nichols as another production assistant on it; Gary was the director of the film. I work with quite a large family of filmmakers.

MA: I was going to
ask about that, your producer Lisa Muskat and then Tim Orr, your DP. Then you’ve
also got Seth Rogen and that gang. What are those family relationships like?
It’s definitely something all filmmakers look for. 

DGG: I don’t think that’s what all filmmakers look for. I have a lot of filmmaker friends, in fact, that want the
opposite of that. They don’t hire the same crew over and over because then they feel like
they’re getting too close and emotionally attached. Personally, I like the social
endeavor of the production process. I love having people to challenge me, to
question what I’m doing, because if I know they’re coming from an intelligent
and supportive place, wanting what’s best for the end product, those
are questions I should be asking during the production process. I work with
people that are inspiring and challenging. I’m fortunate enough that they
happen to be my friends, and at the end of a hard day we can go out and
celebrate with a beer or commiserate about how to be better the next day.

MA: You also
challenge yourself with actors you work with. You want your actors to get their
hands dirty and pull apart what you’ve written. Tell me about some specific
moments in the script where Nicolas and Tye brought something new to their
characters.
 

DGG: There’s a sequence where they’re searching for Joe’s
dog. It’s all improvised. These are just two guys that have
gotten to know each other over a few weeks, gotten to trust each other and have
a sense of humor; know their characters and how they’re relating to each other.
They’re just speaking from their hearts and they’re having fun with it and we
get to see the humanity and humor of these characters. It’s one of my favorite
sequences as well. ‘How to make a cool face.’ The cigarette lighter–that was an
idea that Nic had with a prop, and we integrated it into the movie. I don’t
approach the process of directing movies like I’m the authority. I’m more the
ringmaster of the circus. Let’s bring all the animals in the ring, and then
let’s get loose. Play, feel out what works. 

MA: You do have that
playful tone in the film but underneath it there are some heavy issues. There
are over a million kids in the US who are homeless, but you rarely see movies
made about it. Was that something you were interested in exploring as well?

DGG: The dramatic realities of the novel really intrigued
me. They’re heartbreaking circumstances that lead to inspirational
discoveries.  There’s difficult subject
matter that’s dealt with … in tenderness. That was one of the things that really
intrigued me about the story, the juxtaposition of
brutality and humanity. Where you can find someone that has very likeable qualities
and then find his flaws? Someone who has monstrous qualities, what’s
sympathetic about them? Challenge the audience. Challenge the characters.

MA: There’s a scene
that wasn’t in the novel with Wade, Gary’s father. You wrote it in to show more
of his humanity. Why?

DGG: Gary Poulter, the actor that played Wade, who’s
amazing, was a street performer in downtown Austin and he was a break-dancer. When you have an actor like that with a face like
that and ability like that, you want to utilize it. If you don’t, you’re a
fool. We knew he had these abilities and this amazing charisma and he was
really funny, a wonderful guy in terms of our chapter together in his life. I
thought it would be important to add some threads of humanity, humility
and sensibility to this character that was going to such villainous places: he’s the bad guy in the movie but I wanted to make it more complicated than that.

MA: The scene where
Wade attacks the other homeless man is crucial. Did you approach that scene to
encapsulate the idea that a man is a villain, but perhaps he’s the product of
his environment? 

DGG: I’m not sure how much Wade is a product of his
environment. I think he’s mentally ill and he’s taking out some of
his own frustration and disappointment with himself out on his son. And I think
he’s desperate, as he sees his son slipping away from his family life and drawn
to Joe, as he sees his son rising to the responsibility of being the caretaker of
his mother and his sister. I think it’s humiliating for Wade to deal with the descent
of masculinity. He does what a lot of desperate people do, really unfortunate
actions.

MA: There’s also the
thread of alcoholism and substance abuse in a lot of your work, in Pineapple Express and even Prince Avalanche. Being from the south
as well, I see it’s a big issue. Do you approach it from a personal place?

DGG: Alcohol, drugs, violence, affection, all these things
illustrate the emotions that are explored with these characters. They’re
all devices to get to know people, devices to watch a character exhibit
something internal. In Avalanche,
the characters use alcohol as medication and as a cleansing that connects two
people in a joyous way. It’s a celebration of life, and getting over it, and
moving on.

MA: I wish I were
part of that party.

DGG: That’s a good party! That’s a positive party. In Pineapple
Express,
it’s what slows these guys down but also makes them really
likeable. In Joe, it’s illustrated as
a disease as something that really debilitates the character of Wade. At the
same time, it helps suppress some of the actions Joe might normally do. He uses it to
medicate. If he sees Gary getting hit by his father, and he’s about to open the
door, luckily he’s got a little sauce in his truck to take that edge off. I don’t
think Joe’s an alcoholic, per se. If so, he’s highly functional. I don’t think
he’s ever late for work, I don’t think he wakes up too hung over. I don’t think
he needs alcohol to talk to the ladies.

MA: Was
it a conscious decision to have the last shot not have Gary looking at Joe, but down at his real father, Wade?

DGG: It was a conscious decision for a couple of reasons.
One is, I wanted to reveal that his father was dead. I didn’t want viewers to see it
through Joe’s eyes because that was less important. I wanted them to see it through
his son’s eyes. Then, technically, we shot it day for night. It wouldn’t have looked
consistent if we were to show it from Joe’s perspective anyway. There’s a
different exposure to it.

MA: It’s a story
about redemption and Joe finds it when he puts himself in front of Gary and
says I will commit this act you’re about
to commit.
Did you, even in your imagination, explore if Gary had gone
through with killing his father?

DGG: Always. I think to communicate effectively with Nic, we
needed to be in Joe’s head, and Joe’s playing out the story in his own head.
That’s why Joe steps up to really be the protector in that situation. He’s considered what will happen if Gary falls on the other side of the fence.

MA: You had to go
there with Nic to visualize it.

DGG: We talked about what would happen. You know if someone doesn’t step in, you know Gary’s capable.
He’s a man. He’s not an adolescent in
this movie. It’s the coming of age into manhood. He says to Joe, ‘I could kill him
just as well as you could.’ And Joe says, ‘I know you could.’ Earlier in the
film Joe says, ‘I don’t like to get my hands dirty in every little thing.’

MA: This is not a
little thing, though.

DGG: This is not a little thing, so it’s time to get his
hands dirty.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.